Friday, March 24, 2017

Float like a drone, pollinate like a bee

I suspect that one of the things that allows us to turn a blind eye to all sorts of environmental depredations, whether all-natural or man-made, is the belief that technology will bail us out.

Ocean level rise? We’ll put gates at the mouth of Boston harbor?

Wind power. Solar. Scrubbers. We’ll figure things out.

Sorry about the fact the wooly mammoths no longer roam? Let’s find some frozen DNA and make us some new ones. Hell, maybe we can even shrink them down and make them household pets. No more endangered species! No more extinct, as long as we can find a viable frozen specimen.

This belief in technology isn’t all that unfounded. Technology solves a lot of problems. A man, a plan, a canal, panama and all that.

One of the environmental problems that’s gotten a lot of publicity over the past couple of years – even if the problem has apparently been a bit exaggerated – was the collapse of bee colonies, a situation that was supposed to wreak havoc with all those parts of the food supply that rely on pollination. Stuff like almonds, asparagus, blueberries, cherries, clover, eggplant, squash, and watermelon. Oh, turnip depends on pollination, too, but, frankly, the end of turnip would be no great loss as far as I’m concerned. (With apologies to my cousins Babs and MB, the only people I know who actually like turnip. There weren’t many foods that my parents gave us a pass on growing up. If creamed corn was put on your plate, you ate it, dammit, even if it did taste like vomit. But, for some reason, the Rogers kids were allowed to omit turnip from our plates. We even had a chant for it: turn up your nose at turnip. My father must have hated turnip. The chant sure sounds like him.)

Anyway, while the demise of the pollinating bee colonies may have been greatly overblown, just in case it does happen, there’s a technical solution on the horizon.

That’s thanks to Japanese scientist Eijiro Miyako

Miyako has invented an adhesive gel that collects flowers’ pollen grains and deposits them on other flowers upon contact. His goal is to offer farmers a tool to complement, not replace, bees and other natural pollinators. (Source: Bloomberg)

There are some decidedly low-tech aspects to his work. “The gel is applied to a small patch of horsehair.”

I know that horsehair is (still) used for bow strings and paintbrushes, but there’s something so quaint about the idea of horsehair. It brings up thoughts of horsehair plaster (defunct in this era of sheetrock, no?). And horsehair mattresses. (I had a friend in high school whose ancient family house at the Cape actually had horsehair mattresses – blue leather stuffed with horsehair. It was like sleeping on a bolder.) Not to mention hairshirts (which, creepily, you can buy online).

But Miyako’s innovation is mostly techie. It is, after all, a drone. Bee drone

Miyako pilots the drone from flower to flower, rubbing the horsehair against pistils and stamens. Like the adhesive in a Post-It note, the gel is tacky but not sticky, so it releases some of the pollen grains on contact.

No word on drone safety, but so far the gel has passed do-no-harm experiments on mouse cells, and it “could be tweaked to be made biodegradable.”

To his wife’s chagrin, Miyako paid for the drones himself. Last year he received a $32,000 grant from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science to further develop them.

To which I say, thank you Miyako-San.

I will sleep better tonight, knowing that if the bee colonies actually do collapse, I’ll still be in clover, cherries, and watermelon.

Yay, technology!

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Making Wisconsin Great Again, one butter pat at a time

Jean Smith lives in Wisconsin. As in Dairyland USA Wisconsin.

Alas for Jean Smith, she can’t buy Kerrygold butter in her home state. Thus, she has to cross the state border and stock up – 20 bricks at a time – so that she doesn’t have to go without. And for Jean Smith, going without is really going without. She even “plops a tablespoon of the Ireland-made butter into her tea each morning.”

Well, that I haven’t tried, but I do love Kerrygold.Kerrygold

Other than for baking, I don’t use a ton of butter. But when I want butter on an English muffin or a piece of toast or a slab of soda bread, I’d just as soon it be Kerrygold, which is absolutely delicious and – get this – actually tastes like butter. That’s because it comes from contented, hormone-free, grass-fed cows. Cows with nothing better to do all the long day than mosey around in those naturally-irrigated green fields, chomping on all that un-pesticided green grass, and chewing the old cud. And mosey around they do. I read somewhere that Irish cows spend more time grazing and cudding than do cows anywhere else.

The fact that Kerrygold is banned in Wisconsin is not a reflection on its quality. Not at all.

It’s just that Wisconsin has a law on the books that requires that any butter sold in Wisconsin has to be graded by US or Wisconsin inspectors. For Kerrygold, that’s an impossibility, given that their gold is produced and packaged in Ireland. There may be US customs officials stationed in Ireland, but there aren’t any butter inspectors.

Some stores do risk fines and jail time to sell it – not really much of a risk, given that it’s not particularly enforced – but few stores carry it regularly. And, while the state doesn’t go about fining and jailing over butter, they do inform/warn grocery stores. So it’s easier to just not have any Kerrygold on the shelf, where it would compete with home grown product.

So a group is suing the state of Wisconsin to get rid of the law that’s keeping Kerrygold off the shelves:

Wisconsin is the only state in the nation with such a stringent butter provision, which the lawsuit argues amounts to an unconstitutional "government-mandated 'taste test.'" The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a conservative legal group representing the plaintiffs, said the grading process is subjective and doesn't protect consumers. The real issue, the group argues, is personal freedom. (Source: ABC News)

I’m all in favor of buying stuff made in the US. Especially food stuff, even though I turn a blind eye to wear those winter fruits and veggies are being flown in from. But I’m no rabid locavore, and Kerrygold is so damned good…

And, of course, this is a global economy, despite what they think in some quarters.

I suspect that keeping the fatwa on Kerrygold in place isn’t going to impact the Wisconsin dairy economy much one way or the other. There are only so many Wisconsin-ites (Wisconsinners?) who want it in their tea and who are going to load 20 bricks into their shopping cart when they’re at Piggly Wiggly, especially when they’d have to pay $7-9 a pound for it. Not when Land o’ Lakes goes for a lot less than that. So keeping Kerrygold out won’t be making Wisconsin great again, one pat at a time.

Me? I don’t use enough butter to blink at the price tag, so I’ll keep buying my Kerrygold. I may even try it in my afternoon cup of (Barry’s) tea. Maybe. (I did google butter tea, and apparently it’s a Tibetan thing, generally made with yak butter.)

Anyway, Kerrygold Abú!

A tip of the Pink Slip scally cap to both cousin Rob K (not to be confused with cousin Rob W) and brother-in-law Rick T (not to be confused with brother Rick R) for pointing this one my way. Goodon yez.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Industrious prisoners

When I was a kid, we all knew that prisoners made license plates. And every once in a while there’d be some small frisson of excitement when a plate with a “bad word” was found. We never actually learned what the word was, just that it was plenty bad. Were these rogue plates discovered by the prisons? The Registry of Motor Vehicles? Or some lucky motorist who pulled their license plate out of its wax paper sleeve, only to discover that it contained the F-word?

You actually couldn’t blame the prisoners. How boring to be stamping license plates, day in, day out, and never getting to drive a car bearing one of your plates. All for way, way, way less than the minimum wage.

Anyway, prisoners are pretty industrious. According to an article I saw in The Economist (and using their very British spelling):

At the federal level, the Bureau of Prisons operates a programme known as Federal Prison Industries that pays inmates roughly $0.90 an hour to produce everything from mattresses, spectacles,road signs and body armour for other government agencies, earning $500m in sales in fiscal 2016. Prisoners have produced official seals for the Department of Defence and Department of State, a bureau spokesman confirmed. In many prisons, the hourly wage is less than the cost of a chocolate bar at the commissary, yet the waiting list remains long—the programme still pays much more than the $0.12-0.40 earned for an hour of kitchen work. (Source: The Economist)

And most states get in on the act as well. California prisoners work as meat cutters. In Idaho, they roast potatoes. In the 1990’s, female prisoners in South Carolina made lingerie for Victoria’s Secret. And, not to be outdone, prisoners in Massachusetts produce:

…Braille transcription, business cards, clothing, decals, embroidery, eyeglasses, flags, furniture, letterhead, license plates, metal products, pillows, printing, sheets, & pillow cases, signs, silk screening, towels, & face cloths, mattresses & box springs, and wastebaskets. These products are sold primarily to state and local government entities and are also available for sale to private entities. (Source: Mass Department of Corrections)

Massachusetts prisoners also make binders, presumably the ones that our former governor (and thwarted presidential candidate) Mitt Romney stuffed full of women. (I know it’s hard to recall the quaint old days when there were election kertuffles over claims that one had “binders full of women.”)

Most of the items produced by our Massachusetts prisoners seem sensible, but I’m sitting here wondering what state and local government entities are doing with embroidery. Maybe embroidered items get sold to private entities. And, sexist me, I’m having a hard time envisioning male prisoners sitting there with their embroidery hoops, making French knots. This is not just the sexist me, by the way, it’s the child embroiderer me – the one who knew the blanket stitch, the feather stitch, and how to make a French knot.

The reasoning behind having prisoners occupying their time with useful activity is fine. Here’s the reasoning from my very own Commonwealth:

In an effort to develop strong work habits and employable skills, MassCor operates manufacturing plants at various facilities. MassCor employs more than 350 inmates in several institutions where emphasis is placed on developing strong work habits and employable skills that can be used by the offender when he/she is returned to the community.

I don’t know just how transferrable pillow case making is to the real world, textiles having fled our fair state decades ago. But the work habit intent makes sense. And if this helps the state and city governments save on what they’re spending on pillowcases and box springs, well, that’s all well and good. (Even if I do have to wonder how much the city of Boston spends on pillow cases and box springs in any given year.)

Whether these justifications prove out is another question. There aren’t a ton of metrics to support the case.

But there’s something a bit off-putting at the idea of private industry profiting by paying next to nothing to a captive workforce. I’m pretty sure that most of the work schemes are voluntary. Still, something more than $.90 an hour seems in order. In the summer of 1967, I made $1.40 an hour working in a shoe factory. Surely embroidery, an altogether higher-skill task than cleaning rubber cement off of combat boots, should be worth at least $2.00 and hour in this day and age.

There was no mention of Maine in the article, but I rather like their approach. Oh, I have no idea what they pay their prisoners, but they sell their wares in a uniquely wonderful and completely oddball retail outlet in Thomaston, Maine – right on the main drag in town, so you can’t miss it. There they sell all kinds of items made out of wood, and a few soft goods (tee-shirts, ball caps). You can’t buy their products online, but you can check out the gallery here.

I’ve been there a couple of times, and have a pair of toaster tongs to show for it.

It’s just such a Maine thing. Nothing fancy. In keeping with Maine’s being the Pine Tree State, and having a lot of forests. The products are old-fashioned, simple, well made. (Still using those tongs I got a long time ago.)

Other than for a couple of holidays (Christmas, Thanksgiving, New Year), a few days for inventory, and snow days, they’re open daily, and if you’re in that neck of the woods, it’s definitely worth a stop and shop.

Are Maine’s recidivism levels any better than other states? I don’t have a clue. But I do like to think that someone making toy wooden fire engines that are sold in a store that’s open almost every day has a better shot at successful life on the outside than someone getting paid exploitative wages that put profits in the pockets of private industry.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

“A specialty cocktail served in an ostrich eggshell”

I have been to a few upscale weddings in my day. You know. The kind where you really can’t help running the numbers in your head, followed by making at least one discreet cost comparison with someone sitting at your table. And I will say that I really enjoyed myself at those upscale weddings. What’s not to like about beautiful venue, great food, fun band, open bar, and – if you’re lucky – the chance to take home a centerpiece?

But I have yet to be served “a specialty cocktail served in an ostrich shell.” The closest I came was being offered a Moscow Mule in a copper mug, which I took a pass on, opting instead for a Kir Royale.

Then again, I wasn’t on the guest list for the $3 million dollar shindig that celebrated the nuptials of Alix Carl. Her parents had actually intended to put on a more modest event, somewhere in the $1M range. That’s strikes me as a reasonable budget. (As if!) But $1M or $3M, it really doesn’t matter. That’s a big budget event with a lot of details to manage. So Joan and Bernard Carl hired a wedding planner, and brand unto herself, Mindy Weiss.

Well, $1M wedding ain’t what it used to be, and Mindy apparently assumed that she had a blank check, while the Carls assumed that they would have some control over costs.

Live and learn, I guess.

And what you learn is that 3,500 white roses “individually studded into the lawn” of the Carls’ Southampton estate, where part one of the movable feast took place don’t come cheap. At Southampton:

The reception included a specialty cocktail served in an ostrich eggshell; the after parties offered a Calvados and cigar bar, plus hot chocolate and brownie stations. (Source: WaPo – may need a subscription to access)

Cigar bar. Brownie station. No big deal. But a cocktail served in an ostrich eggshell? Who dreams up this stuff?

While she may not have “authored” the splosh concoction herself, that would be Mindy Weiss, Hollywood wedding-planner extraordinaire. Weiss has worked with the likes of “Sofia Vergara, Ellen DeGeneres, Gwen Stefani, the Kardashians and ABC’s “The Bachelor.””

Mindy’s also into favors. Because the 250 guests wouldn’t want to come home empty handed. No Jordan almonds in a net bag for her weddings. She spent:

$4,300 for totes, $5,000 for T-shirts, $1,000 for hangover Tylenol pouches.

Okay. When you’re spending $3M, or even $1M, for a wedding, what’s $10K on party favors. But it’s only $40 per guest, so the guests who were doing their running mental calcs of costs may well have felt slighted, wondering why the Carls had stinted on gifteens for them. I spent $2K to attend this wedding and all I got was this crappy tee-shirt. Still, who needs this stuff? I can guarantee that, while the hangover pouches might have come in handy, most of those totes and T-shirts ended up at Goodwill.

It wasn’t just Weiss who was going all-in.

The mother of the bride commissioned monogrammed napkins for each place setting, as well as a custom fabric for the tables and the flower girl’s dress.

Probably not as cra as it sounds, given that the Carls own D. Porthault, the luxury linens purveyor. Still: custom fabric? Sheesh!

Part II of the wedding was at the Carls’ Loire Valley chateau. To make up for the lack of specialty cocktails in ostrich eggshells, this part featured hot air ballooning.

This wedding made the news at the time – the double dos were featured in Brides Magazine – because it was so pricey and fancy. It’s in the news now because Weiss is suing the Carls for unpaid fees ($340K) plus $1.4M in damages. And she’s hanging on to the wedding video until they pay up.

For folks who were sufficiently enough successful financially that they could afford to throw a $1M wedding, the Carls were a bit on the naive side when it came to the business side of things. They were the ultimate “owners”. So why weren’t they managing the wedding planner better? A question I’m sure they’ve asked themselves plenty of times..

It’s something of a they-said/she-said sort of deal.

In the lawsuit, Weiss contends that the Carls “expressed an interest in an extravagant affair, never mentioning the word ‘budget.’ ” That assertion is “absolutely, unequivocally, totally untrue,” Carl says. He says he expected to spend in the neighborhood of $1 million and was waiting to see her proposal before discussing final numbers. (The event ended up costing more, although he would not disclose the final tally.)

The bottom line on the bottom line was that it wasn’t until 6 weeks before the wedding that the Carls saw the $3M proposal. Talk about poor business practice. Talk about feeling cornered…

The father of the bride was stunned and refused to pay some charges that he considered to be wildly inflated. Because Weiss had waited so long to submit her plan, he says, it was too late to hire other vendors.“In mid-May, this wedding was very close to being almost canceled,” he says.

“At one point, I told Joan I was prepared to write a very big check to the kids as a wedding present, cancel the wedding and sue Mindy. I was done. I was really done.”

Bet that would have gone over well, all the way around.

Anyway, here we have it: Mindy Weiss suing the Carls. And the Carls really do want to get their mitts on that wedding video.

But Mindy Weiss and the Carls sure sounds like a marriage made in hell, doesn’t it?

Plan on the next Carl kid wedding not being planned by Mindy Weiss.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Come on, a trial would be waymo interesting

Well, the news came in last week that Google v. Uber might not be going to trial, but could be heading for arbitration instead. Is it just me, but – costs be damned! – wouldn’t a trial be waymo fun? After all, arbitration tends to result in a confidential finding. If we don’t have access to the facts of the matter, guess we’ll have to follow the current trend and just make up our own alt facts, which will depend, I guess, on whether we like Google better than Uber or vice versa. That’ll be a hard one. I am an occasional Uber-er, once every couple of weeks or so. But I’m a daily/hourly Googler. My natural tendency would be to lean Google, as their motto – “Don’t be evil.” – is a lot more woke than Uber’s “Evolving the way the world moves.”

For those who hadn’t gotten word about the autonomous car brouhaha, Waymo is Google’s self-driving car division. It – or their parent company, Alphabet, which no one calls anything but Google – is suing Uber:

…for allegedly using 14,000 documents of proprietary information stolen from Waymo by former employee Anthony Levandowski, who went on to start autonomous truck company Otto—which, in turn, was purchased by Uber. (Source: The Drive)

How this all came to light was that someone from Uber accidentally included someone from Waymo on an email that attached some Otto designs that had a suspicious resemblance to Waymo design. Oops…

Anyway, this whole thing is/was a lot bigger than Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s recent set-to with one of his drivers. With Google coming after them:

…the company must worry about a legal dispute that could cost it a truckload of money, kill its self-driving research, and even land more than one executive in prison. (Source: Wired)

If this incident goes to arbitration, it’s unlikely that anyone will be Ubering off in an orange jump suit. After all, arbitration has been dubbed “corporate America’s ‘get out of jail free’ card.” But truckload of money and killing their self-driving initiative don’t sound like Ubers to the beach, either. Wonder if there’s claw back so that Uber – if it ends up with a big fine – can retrieve the $680M is spent last summer to acquire Otto. Anyway, if the allegations are true, well, is this any way to evolve the way the world moves? I think not…

Part of the forensic evidence was that, on his way out the Waymo door, Levandowski allegedly sucked gigs of data pertaining to Waymo’s trade secrets on LIDAR (LIght Detection And Ranging) out of his laptop and onto an external hard drive. LIDAR’s what helps those autonomous cars and trucks get around without crashing into other autonomous cars and trucks. It’s a really big deal.

…a legal loss could devastate Uber’s self-driving car program, and thus the company’s future. Uber’s developing a self-driving car in the hope of cutting out the expensive middlemen, its drivers. But it’s also a defensive move, because if another player—Waymo, Ford, GM or anyone else in this race—gets there first, they could do the same thing, undercutting Uber’s human-dependent service….

This is an existential crisis.

Existential crises sure aren’t what they were when Sartre was a boy, but as current day existential crises goes, this is right up there.

As so often happens, this really big deal reminds me of a really no big deal incident that occurred in the course of my long and really no big deal career.

Back in the day, I worked for an underfunded software company that had great ideas and technology, but could never get out of its own way. It didn’t start out all that underfunded. In a time when $40M was a lot of money, we had managed to suck that amount out of our hapless investors, a group that included (of all things) a true widows and orphans fund. But then our investors ran out of patience – you know how those widows and orphans can be - and we were limping along with one of our great ideas, just trying to stay in business. The market for this particular tech application area was just getting hot, but our technology hadn’t gotten a ton of care and feeding. So we were just getting by. Everyone knew what we needed to do – get rid of our dependence on OS/2 (an IBM operating system), develop an interface that someone who was not a core programer could actually use – but pretty much all we were able to do was patch it up and get it out the door, hoping each month that we could find enough custoers to keep the roof over our heads.

The lead engineer on this product had been “working from home” for a good swath of time over an extended period. He was supposedly head down coding some new miracle version of our pathetic and worn out product. But we weren’t seeing anything of it.

Then there was the day when a couple of developers walked out the door with a server. Which a day later they returned, and proceeded to give in their resignations, as did the lead engineer. And they went off to found a company in the same domain we were in.

Only they were starting with a blank slate and investment money.

I really don’t think that they stole our IP. Who wanted a product based on OS/2? This was, after all, just about the time that Info Week had a cover depicting OS/2 in a coffin with a lily on its lid. But I do believe that what this crew had been doing was spending their last couple of months at our company working on the new exciting stuff for their new company. Thus, the walk out with the server. It wasn’t our stuff; if was their stuff. Sort of. They’d quite dishonorably done their work on our dime. (Why did they need to “borrow” the server? Were there no portable hard drives they could have backed it up to then? This would have been somewhere in the mid-90’s.)

Fast forward, and we ended up suing them. They settled with us for less than $1M, but that was a big deal for us, and it was a cash infusion that we sorely needed. But they had real investment money, and they flourished while we just managed to keep our nose above water. We lasted a few more years before being acquired for chump change, but chump change was all we were worth. A few years later, they were acquired for non chump change. ($100M.) I lost a friendship over the law suit. As Michael Corleone famously told his consigliere Tom Hagen, “don't let anybody kid you. It's all personal, every bit of business.”

Anyway, it will be interesting to see how this Google-Uber thing plays out.

A trial sure would have been interesting, though.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Faith and Begorrah

This will be the 11th time that Pink Slip celebrates St. Patrick’s Day. All I can say to that is beejaysus.

Today I have no plans to do much by way of celebrating. I’ll probably listen to some Irish trad CDs, but there’s nothing special about that. I do that plenty.

I’ll check and see if WGBH (PBS) has some type of concert on. Failing that, I’ll probably watch the evening boy-o lineup on MSNBC: Chris Matthews, Chris Hayes, Larry O’Donnell, Brian Williams. (I’m guessing three, possibly four, green ties in there.) Of course, if I’m up for the full liberal lament lineup, I’ll also watch Rachel Maddow (the rose amid the thorns) in there, too.

I will water me shamrock, drink Barry’s tea, and eat some soda bread with Kerry Gold butter.

I will wear green, at least to PT in the morning, when I’m up for an eval of the tendonitis in my ankle that’s been treated since the first of the year. Having worn a green jumper throughout grammar school and high school, I’m not all that big on the wearin’ o’ the green, that’s for sure. But I do have a green workout shirt. And some cheesy shamrock earrings.

Last Friday, I went to an Irish music concert in Worcester with my sister Trish and cousin Barbara.

We had dinner at Bab’s before-hand, and I brought an entirely fitting Roche Piedessert, which I’d seen by chance at the Roche Bros. that morning. Now I ask you, is that a spectacular looking lemon meringue pie or what? It was actually very tasty. (Apologies to flag purists, by the way, I know that the orientation of the Irish flag is green-white-orange, not the other way around.)

As for the concert, young Irish tenor Emmet Cahill sings some of the corniest of cornball Irish (or Irish-y) songs – if “Danny Boy” and “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen”* came to your mind, you’d be dead on - but he has a gorgeous voice, and is an extremely warm and personable performer. (Not to mention completely adorable.) Plus he took my request (“Galway Girl”) and seemed happy to receive it, as most of the requests he fielded were for dirges and “Galway Girl” is a lot of fun. (Here’s a very entertaining performance of it done by Mundy and Sharon Shannon on the streets of Galway last summer, with a crowd in the thousands singing and playing along.) One of the requests was, bizarrely, for the “Irish National Theme Song.” I think the guy meant anthem… There was a promise to end up the concert with it (as was often done at trad sessions when I first went to Ireland many years ago; not so much any more), but that didn’t happen.

Young Mr. Cahill did have the good sense to say that he couldn’t do “Mother Machree”, claiming he didn’t know it. Good on him. I like to think I contributed to what may have been temporary amnesia on his part, because when I heard the request go out for “Mother Machree” I let out an involuntary and quite audible groan. (This was a small venue – full house, but maybe 300 or so folks.)

Emmet also blessedly ytranslated someone’s request for “Molly Malone” to “My Irish Molly O”.

“Galway Girl” and “My Irish Molly O” (both apt, given that my niece Molly is a Galway girl for the semester) more than made up for “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen.”

Plus, he ended with “The Parting Glass,” a lovely tune (and one dear to my heart: it was sung at my husband’s memorial service).

Last night, I attended The Celtic Sojourn concert in Beverly. I’m writing this before that event, but I’ve been to Celtic Sojourn (a Saturday program on WGBH radio I often listen to) concerts in the past, so I’m pretty sure that it will be great craic, and that I’ll much enjoy myself.

So, that’s it for this edition of St. Patrick’s Day, except to add slán agus sláinte

And to provide a list of past episodes, some of which are pretty good reads:

2016: Kiss Me, I’m Half Irish

2015: The Wearin’ O The Green

2014: St. Patricks’ Day 2014

2013: The Ides of St. Patrick’s Day”

2012: Answering Ireland’s Call

2011: St. Patrick’s Day 2011

2010: St. Paddy’s Day No More We’ll Keep.

2009: Irish Eyes Not So Smiling These Days.

2008: You Say Po-tay-to, I say Po-tah-to. Who’s Irish and Who’s Not.

2007: Kiss Me, I’m Irish.

*A song that my sister Kathleen most heartedly despised. I suspect if we’d had a brother Daniel (the boy’s name lined up for my sister Trish), he wouldn’t have been all that wild about “Danny Boy”, either.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Just a bit off target

It’s been a hallmark of the past few decades that much of what’s familiarly local (First National Bank of Boston, Dini’s Seafood, Filene’s) has become regrettably bland and interchangeable (Bank America, Red Lobster, Macy’s). I will make one note here: ain’t nobody misses Dini’s. But, yeah, we all miss the local color.

Some organizations try to make us forget that everywhere has become anywhere. Occasionally they succeed. A few years back, Bank America had a series of billboard ads that brilliantly captured Boston’s being a Red Sox town. (Can’t recall the details, but they were terrific.)

Most attempts to at localization are pretty feeble. But Target’s recent try at acting locally was a really big swing-n-a-miss. tshirt

What Target did was start to sell Boston-themed tee-shirts.

Which would have been fine, if they didn’t botch them so badly.

On that shirt to the left, they included Cambridge in with The Hub. That I can actually forgive. Much as it is (and considers itself) a separate city, Cambridge is part of greater Boston.

But Mission Hills? Huh?

Mission Hills sounds like a development in Southern California, like the one E.T. was filmed in. Adobe, terracotta, backyard pools, and a nod to Junipero Serra and the Franciscans who set up all those missions. Here, it’s Mission Hill, a single hill named after a Redemptorist (not Franciscan) church established when the famine Irish started flooding into Boston. Mission Church actually has a name – Basilica and Shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Help – but no one in Boston (even the parishioners, I suspect) knows it by that name. (I had to google it, and I lived for four years in spitting distance of it.) Around here, it’s Mission Church. On Mission Hill.

Mission Hills? Go back to California.

The shirt to the right is even worse.

Bad enough they spelled Jamaica Plain wrong. (Jamaca Plain.) But, as anyone in Boston can tell you, when you ask someone from Jamaica Plain where they live, the answer, as often as not, is JP. Saying Jamaica Plain is almost as much a giveaway as telling someone to take a right off of Massachusetts Avenue onto Commonwealth Avenue. (That’s Mass Ave and Comm Ave, to you, stranger.)

And I have never heard anyone use the word Central to describe downtown Boston. From the map, they’ve lumped Beacon Hill, the Financial District, and Chinatown together. That’s quite a lump. And it’s a lump no one calls Central. The only Central around here was the Central Artery which, thanks to the Big Dig and the largesse of the American taxpayer, is all dead and buried.

The goofiest goof on the shirt, of course, is calling Southie Southy. Given how Southie has, thanks to Matt, Ben, and Marky Mark, become a trope for a certain type of foul-mouthed, scally-capped, stupidity-prone Irish American, you’d think that they could have got this one right. Are these tee-shirt designers not familiar with that grand old song, “I was born down on A Street, brought up on B Street, Southie is my home town”? Sheesh. Even folks from Worcester know Southie is Southie. Accept no substitutes, especially Southy.

On yet another shirt, they had West Roxbury as West Roxberry. Maybe if locals pronounced it West Roxberry, that would make some sense. But it’s West Roxbry. Or just plain old West Rox.

Then there’s the Neponset River, which in Target-ese is Nepsonset.

The shirts are being pulled, but what do you expect? They were apparently designed by a New York tee-shirt company.

All this reminds me of non-local intra-inning commentator that the Red Sox employed a few years ago. Part of her job was reading tweets that came in during the games, and one time I heard her call one of the Twitterers “Do-Trat.” LMAO. Anyone from these parts knows a Dot Rat (someone from Dorchester) when they see their handle.

Target has, of course, offered up a mea culpa of sorts.

“Certainly, localization is something Target is committed to, and we love to be able to carry products that are reflective of the local community, which is why you would see Boston T-shirts in our Boston stores,” said Target spokeswoman Jessica Carlson in a telephone interview.

“We apologize for any disappointment that this may have caused.” (Source: Boston Globe)

Boston to Jessica Carlson, who’s probably a perfectly nice person working out of Minneapolis HQ:

Disappointment? You have got to be kidding. Ain’t nobody here disappointed to see Southie as Southy, Jamaca Plain, Mission Hills. Jessica, Jessica, Jessica. If you need to know anything about targeting products to us locals, you need to know that we thrive on stuff like this.

Meanwhile, in a few weeks there will be kids in the Third World wearing Nepsonset tee-shirts and wondering where the hell Nepsonset is.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Snow Day

Ever since the Blizzard of ‘78 – back in the day when weather forecasting was not quite the “science” it is today, and people actually were stranded in their offices, cars, and Boston Garden for days on end; when everyone lost power; and the stores, banks, and just about everything else were closed – people (including those who weren’t alive in 1978) go into a grocery-buying panic whenever a major storm is forecast. The scenes are hilarious, of course. Five gallons of milk? Really?

Monday the scene was the usual: markets with lines wending their way up and down the aisles, and folks reporting waits of 2 hours in some stores. While the bread and milk shelves were, not surprisingly, stripped bare by early evening, people at a couple of stores tweeted that supplies of broccoli were all out. 

I had stopped in Roche Bros. for bread and bananas – both normal purchases – on my way to the gym around 8 a.m. Monday morning. Pre-panic mode.  No mobs, no long lines at that point.

Anyway, I was all set for whatever Mother Nature threw our way, and settled in on Monday night with a forecast of 12+ inches and blizzard conditions for Boston.

When I got up on Tuesday, about 8 a.m., there wasn’t much on the ground and it was just snowing lightly, so I decided to take 20170314_103823my chances and get in some of my 10,000 steps out of doors. (Circling my dining table and pacing my galley kitchen make me dizzy after about 500 steps, and I do so want to get my 10K in.)

It wasn’t too bad out. I wouldn’t say pleasant, but it was fine. And a lot warmer than it’s been the past couple of days. So I cut through the Public Garden, past Mrs. Mallard and her brood, and headed toward the Back Bay, where there was little car or foot traffic, but where businesses were already out cleaning the sidewalks.

The walkways on the Commonwealth Mall and in the Public Garden were also being cleared, even though the accumulation when I was out was barely an inch.

Between the steps I had cobbled together before heading out, and my meander around Back Bay for 45 minutes or so, I knew I was nearing my goal. So I decided to tack on a stroll down Charles Street, where our wonderful local (locally owned: the proprietor and his family live over the store) hardware store and saw that they were open, in case anyone 20170314_104223was in need of firewood, a shovel, ice melt, paint, garbage bags, a corkscrew, a hairdryer, or anything else our wonderful general store sells. (Yay, Charles Street Supply.)

There were folks in all the coffee shops, including one lone new economy worker-bee wonking away on his laptop in J.P. Licks, which is mostly for ice cream. Just not today.

This is the sort of a day when my husband and I would have gone out for lunch to one of the restaurants around the corner. (One more reason to miss him…) But I had bread. And bananas. So I was fine with lunch on my own at home.

By the time I got to Charles Street, the wind was picking up. Blessedly, it was to my back, but that didn’t bode well for the return trip, which I foolhardedly decided to take along Storrow Drive, which runs along the banks of the River Charles. But the wind on Storrow was coming sideways, which was fine.

I reached my front door at 8,988 steps, knowing20170314_115204 it would be easy enough to get the remaining steps needed to crest 10,000 just by making lunch and doing a load of wash.

It was an afternoon designed for baking and, having gotten my buttermilk and caraway seeds over the weekend, I was set for making Irish soda bread, which I do each year around St. Patrick’s Day. I put on Ceol Tigh Neachtain, a CD from my favorite trad pub in Galway, and baked away, stopping on occasion to admire the snow scene out my window.

Speaking of stopping, during one of my admiring looks out the window, the snow – which couldn’t have accumulated to more than 6 inches by mid-afternoon – seemed to be turning into rain. (The weather folks were still assuring us that at least it was a blizzard in Worcester. Of course.)

But it was snowy enough that, with a cup of Barry’s tea (sweet and milky, my grandmother’s way) and a chunk of soda bread slathered with Kerry Gold butter, there was nothing left but to curl up with “The Dead,” arguably the greatest short story ever written. It doesn’t snow much in Ireland, but it does during “The Dead,” and this is James Joyce at his best.

My recipe for soda bread comes from County Cork, from whence cometh James Joyce’s antecedents. My Joyce antecedents hailed from Co. Mayo, so we’re no relation. But perhaps the recipe I use was the self-same one that James Joyce’s mither followed.

Ready for another cup of tay, I texted my upstairs neighbors to come down for tea and soda bread, which they did (and reciprocated with an invite for home made beef stew for dinner: yum).

Other than cleaning off the steps and front walk at one point, I didn’t do a lick of work all day, at all, at all.

Altogether, an excellent snow day.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Cigars? Cigarettes? Tiparillos? IQOS?

I grew up during the Great Era of Big Tobacco Advertising. Ask any Baby Boomer, and I’m pretty sure that 99.44% of them can fill in all of these blanks*.

  • Take a puff, it’s..
  • I’d walk a mile for a…
  • Winston tastes good, like a…
  • Step up to Dutch Masters, and smile…
  • Switch from hots to…
  • Call for….

One of my favorite smoke ads was for Tiparillos. The setting for the ad I recall is a swinging night club –check it out here; watch for the couple doing The Hitchhiker – and the main action is a cigarette girl making her way around the floor with her tray, purring, “Cigars, cigarettes, Tiparillos” to all those sexy, cooler-than-cool, dancers.

Smoking was everywhere: homes, offices, streets, movie theaters, airplanes. Even hospital rooms. As my father lay dying, he had to ask my Uncle Charlie not to smoke during his visits. I once saw a decades-old episode of Dr. Kildare (a popular show of the early 1950’s) in which Jim Kildare’s mentor, Dr. Gillespie, gets off an elevator at Blair General Hospital, cigarette dangling from his lips.

The tobacco industry was HUGE. Not just financially, but as a presence in our consciousness.

But that was then and this is now. Fewer people – at least in the US – smoke, and it’s considered pretty shameful and embarrassing to be a smoker.

But Big Tobacco, unlike the lungs of smokers, didn’t exactly shrivel up and die. It’s not like coal mining, for instance. Tobacco companies expanded overseas, encouraging all those young Chinese folks to light up. Some of them got into parallel businesses (junk food). I suspect that some of them are getting into wacky tabacky.

Mostly, I don’t spend a ton of time worrying about how the tobacco companies are faring.

Still, I was interested in a Bloomberg article I saw recently on how Big Tobacco is remaking itself.

Call for Philip Morris International’s new website and they’re touting that they’re “Designing for a smoke-free future.” And asking “How long will the world’s leading cigarette company be in the cigarette business?” (The US version of Philip Morris, while not exactly pushing everyone to smoke ‘em if they got ‘em, is a lot more tobacco-friendly than PM International.)

One thing they’re looking at is a “tobacco gizmo” called an IQOS.

To use an IQOS, you push a flavored packet of tobacco called a heatstick into the mouth of a tubular, pipelike holder, which is a bit smaller than a kazoo. When you press a button on the holder, it heats up a metal blade inside, which cooks the tobacco to roughly a third of the temperature of a traditional cigarette. Then you puff away. The tobacco is warmed without combusting, so it doesn’t release any fire, smoke, or ash. This, in  theory, makes it healthier to inhale when using heat-not-burn gadgets than when smoking, for instance, a run-of-the-mill Parliament. On the internet, various users have theorized that IQOS is an acronym for “I Quit Ordinary Smoking.”

The name IQOS? It:

“…has no meaning in particular—it’s meant to represent quality, technology, electronics, intelligent systems—because this is not a tobacco category.”

It seems to me that anything to do with putting a lighted object full of tobacco into your mouth ain’t never going to be an “intelligent system.” But why quibble. Mostly it pretty much sounds to me like vaping on an e-cigarette. There is, however, a difference:.

Executives say current smokers may be more likely to switch to an IQOS rather than to an e-cigarette, because they believe the heat-not-burn experience more closely resembles the taste and buzz of cigarettes. It’s a key selling point. Some packs of IQOS refills are marked with the slogan “The pleasure of heated tobacco.” The heatsticks, branded as Heets, look . like stumpy cigarettes with a filter on one end and the hyperprocessed golden-brown tobacco neatly packed in cigarette paper. Right now the tobaccomagineers are getting ready to field-test a disposable heat-not-burn product called Teeps, which looks like a standard cigarette.

Tobaccomaginers? Now there is a job title. And I’m sure for smokers, someone having imagined something that looks like a “standard cigarette” (even one with a name so close to Peeps) is a good thing Remember, holding a lit cigarette used to be considered sophisticated and alluring.

Philip Morris views its heatsticks as a “platform”. Ah, platform, one of those words that have crept into marketing over the last decade or so. In the tech world, every product is a platform. Every individual who wants to burnish their brand – brand: another word that’s crept in – must have a platform. And for tobacco, it’s not just a platform. It’s an intelligent system. (Sometimes I really despise the marketing profession.)

While they’re talking platform, Philip Morris is also talking end-of-lifing the cigarette business. Oh, they’re not using the term end-of-life. That – gasp - would be too close to home. But they do want to see it “sunsetting.” And they’re hoping that having a critical mass of smokers adopt IQOS (image: blue-green hummingbird) will help accelerate the process. None of this “I’d rather fight than switch.” (A Tareyton (image black eye) ad from the way back.)

Innovation fever isn’t limited to Philip Morris.

Everywhere you look in the industry, companies are pouring money into product development while borrowing liberally from the style of Silicon Valley. They’re funding tech incubators, running venture funds, hosting TED-style talks, and developing apps. The new dogma has spread. Cigarettes are the industry’s past. Reduced-risk tobacco platforms are the user interface of the future.

Tobacco executives often sound like media owners talking about content. That is, they’re open to delivering their drug via whatever pipe the consumer chooses—be it e-cigarettes, heat-not-burn devices, gum, lozenges, dip, or some medium that hasn’t been invented yet. They are, as the media gurus would say, “platform-agnostic.”

As it happens, I’m working on a data sheet for one of my tech clients,and I’ve actually had to deploy (another fine tech word) the term “platform agnostic.”

So that’s where I stopped reading.

A “platform-agnostic” intelligent nicotine delivery system.

Things were a lot simpler back when Lucky Strike Meant Fine Tobacco.


*Springtime; Camel; cigarette should; brother, smile; Kools; Philip Morris

Monday, March 13, 2017

Wasting away in Margaritaville (literally)

I have lot maintained that Jimmy Buffett is a MARKETING GENIUS.

After all, he’s parlayed a rather modest repertoire of hits – not that I don’t yip for joy when “Margaritaville comes on the car radio, but I can never get beyond “Margaritaville” and “Come Sunday” when I do my Parrotheadcount – into a major brand. And a major fortune. There are the restaurants, the casinos, the clothing line…

And now - attention Baby Boomers – there’s his chain of retirement communities.

The first one will be located in Daytona Beach, Fla., and more locations are expected to be announced soon.

Latitude Margaritaville is being marketed as senior living “for those looking to live the Margaritaville lifestyle as they grow older, but not up.” It will essentially be a walkable neighborhood for older adults with a “no worries, tropical vibe” and will feature exercise facilities, an indoor lap pool, a band shell for live performances, and indoor and outdoor dining areas where Parrotheads can kick back and enjoy Margaritaville-branded food and drinks. According to the Latitude Margaritaville website, the sales center at Daytona Beach is scheduled to open this fall, and model homes should be ready early next year. (Source: Boston Globe)

Well, it’s not exactly my idea of a nightmare. A nightmare would be retiring to Branson, Missouri, and being swept into a non-stop Lawrence Welk concert (with the luffly Lennon Sisters). Still, I don’t want to spend my declining/reclining years surrounded by a bunch of shaggy-haired dudes in Hawaiian shirts, cargo shorts, and flip-flops. I personally don’t want to sit around all day slurping piña coladas in my floral sarong, gardenia stuck behind my ear. (Actually, the piña coladas sound pretty good.) But being with all those folks who don’t want to grow up while they grow old. Someone that appeals to, well…

I’m all for staying independent, for maintaining a “youthful” outlook, and I’ve got nothing against forever-young-ness (as long as it comes with a strong overlay of also-adult-ness). It sure beats sitting around staring out the window. But, let’s face it, if we live long enough, a lot of us will age out of dying with our flip-flops on, and age into old age. No “tropical vibe” is going to forestall all the depredations of old age, at least not for all of us, much as we might be all fingers-crossed hopey about that being the case.

But I guess if you’re going to be wasting away, Margaritaville is as good a place as any.

Just not for me.

My ideal retirement community would feature a “book vibe”. There’d be libraries everywhere, and book swapping would be a way of life. There’d be four seasons, too – none of this 365 “tropical vibe.” Only we wouldn’t have to actually go out it in. We could look out at it, smiling benignly at snow we don’t have to shovel, ice we can’t slip on, leaves we don’t need to rake.

Outdoor dining would be fine – I’m with Latitude Margaritaville there. But I’d want something beyond Margaritaville fare. Beyond piña coladas, I’m not quite sure what the Buffett diet is. Papaya in salad? Fried conch? Good once in a while, but as a steady diet? I’d vote for a bit more variety.

You can buy in to Daytona for as little as the low-$200s. Not clear what happens when you really start wasting away. And, as a business proposition, what’s the long-term outlook on this. Are there rising generations of Parrotheads, or are they all dying out, as will be happening over the next several decades to the Baby Boomers.

It’s actually kind of fun to fast forward and imagine what the culty brands will be for the millennial generation. Will there by Justin Bieber retirement communities? Taylor Swift? Bruno Mars? Lady Gaga? I’ve gotta say that Parrotheads sound like more fun. But it’s still a case of include me out. I may not start wearing muu-muus and orthopedic sandals from the Vermont Country Store, but I do not believe I’ll be sitting around in a Hawaiian shirt, either.

But never say never. Maybe Margaritaville will be really good on the medicinal marijuana front…


Friday, March 10, 2017

Do the (Uber) Hustle

There was CEO and co-founder Travis Kalanick’s close and video’d encounter with one of his drivers. Then there was the Greyball “scandal-een”, in which Uber was found to have used an app (of course) to avoid ticket-giving cops. And let’s not forget the sexual discrimination charges. But from where I stand, the best Uber story of late was the one I saw this week on The Guardian.

It turns out that the “Uber way” – that “take-no-prisoners, win-at-any-cost mentality [which] has helped the company soar to market domination and a $70bn valuation” – has a downside beyond revelations about things like Greyball. It turns out that a lot of Uber employees – the real employees, not the drivers: oh, pardon, me the partners – are looking to leave. And they’re having a hard time finding new companies willing to hire them.

“People are looking to get out because they’re just sick of working for that company,” said a former Uber employee, who asked not to be identified. “A lot of them have told me that they’re having a hard time finding something new.”

At job interviews, the employee said, recruiters seem wary of Uber’s “hustle-oriented” workplace. “They have to defend themselves and say, ‘Oh, I’m not an asshole.’”

The “asshole” reputation stems directly from Uber’s corporate values, former employees and others in the tech industry said. For many, company “values” are the kind of corporate speak that rarely interferes with one’s day to day work environment. But at Uber, the emphasis on hustling, toe-stepping and meritocracy took on a more sinister aspect in the workplace (Source: The Guardian)

Well, while I have no idea how employees are compensated, I’m guessing that, with the possibility of an IPO this year, and with that cra $70B valuation, I’m sure that any employee with options is going to be hanging on. However lousy the working conditions, money does tend to talk.

But it doesn’t surprise me that employers may be a bit skittish about hiring someone from a company that has “always be hustlin’” as one of its core values.

This, of course, made me curious about what the other values are that Uber holds dear. According to a post by Sarah Shull on Sum Total:

Uber has 14 core cultural values, including vision, quality obsession, innovation, “going toe to toe with colleagues,” fierceness, execution, communication, and “super-pumpedness.” Essentially, Uber employees must have a “hustle” mindset and a do-whatever-it-takes attitude to move the company in the right direction. (Source: Sum Total)

Shull seems prety enthusiastic – pumped and fierce – about these values making Uber great, but I’m exhausted just reading them. I’m okay with having vision, and, if you take out the “obsession” bit, who can argue with quality?. Communication. Innovation. Execution. Check, check, check.

But “going toe to toe with colleagues?” I’ve certainly worked in environments where we went toe to toe on occasion. Toe-to-toed-ness builds strength! Plus it’s more or less inevitable every once in a while. But I’ll take a pass on a corporate culture that promotes it as a core value. Way too easy to turn into pure, unadulterated asshole-ishness. Ditto for fierceness. (A workplace full of Xena, Woman Warriors? No, thanks.) And super-pumpedness? I prefer a more chill place, one that has tea bags in the kitchen, not just cans of Jolt.

An employee cited in The Guardian article categorized Uber as a “Hobbesian jungle,” where getting ahead meant that someone else has to die.

Who wants to work in place where every work day is nasty, brutish and too damned long?

As with the toe-to-toe value, this kind of behavior happens even in companies that don’t encourage it. At the last company I worked at full time, during my final months, there was a really wild battle between two teams of senior execs, The Tall Guys and The Short Guys. I reported to one of The Tall Guys, and The Tall Guys were pretty much the guys I liked. (Yes, it was all guys who were playing this particular war.) And I actively disliked a couple of The Short Guys, fellows who were nasty, brutish, and short. (For those in the know, I’m thinking here of DM in particular and, to lesser degree, SP.) Alas, The Tall Guys lost, and most of them (and their loyal direct reports, self-included) were shown the door.

Back to Uber, a hiring manager interviewed in the article said that, while he would talk to candidates from Uber, he would be eyes wide open when it came to figuring out whether they were going to fit in a different type of culture.

“To be perfectly honest, I don’t want to work with  someone who did well in that environment,” he said. “If you did well in that environment upholding those values, I probably don’t want to work with you.”

This guy wasn’t the only one. Caveat, hiring managers.

I’m not hiring, and I’m not looking. So I won’t be interviewing any Uber employees any time soon. Nor will I be applying for a job there and risk being asked how I feel about super-pumpedness. But it’s just another reason why I’m happy to be out of the game, not being fierce, not doing anyone’s corporate hustle.

Me? I’ll stick with the app on my phone, happy knowing that someone from Uber will be here shortly, and take me where I want to go for cheap.

The drivers are hustling, but, fortunately, I haven’t run into any who seemed especially super-pumped and fierce.

Thank Travis Kalanick for small blessings?

Thursday, March 09, 2017

A stroll down memory lane –make that memory runway

Over the course of my long and distinguished business career, I ended up doing plenty of business travel. Oh, except for occasional periods of intense travel, I wasn’t exactly a road warrior. But I did travel enough to make me at least a semi-pro.

I came to realize very early on that business travel is decidedly unglamorous (note to self: travel stories as future blog topic). After all, my first trip was to Newark, NJ. Can’t remember who we visited – an insurance company? something to do with AT&T? But I do remember that it was cold, grey, and dreary.

My most “exciting” trips were to Amsterdam and London (a quasi-day trip, believe it or not). Other than Newark, my least exciting domestic trips were to Topeka, KS and Lynchburg, VA. But I did see a lot of the USA over the years. I regret that my trip to Frankenmuth, MI was snowed out.

I estimate that, over the years, about half of my business trips were to NYC. Fine by me! (I still get a thrill when I come in over the 59th Street Bridge.)

All those business trips – and plenty of fun trips (my husband was even more of a New York-ophile than I am)  – means that the airport I’ve logged most of my time in (other than Logan) is LaGuardia.

Of late, my preference is Amtrak, so it’s been a few years since I’ve been there, but I do fondly remember LaGuardia, even though I understand full well that the best way to describe it is to quote Bette Davis (alas, not referring to LaGuardia), “What a dump.” 

I mean that in the most affectionate of ways, but every trip in and out of LGA was pretty much a slog.

At one point, as I settled in on the shuttle  - I think it was the 7 p.m. back to Boston, but it may have been the 6:30 a.m. to LGA -  I looked around the cabin and realized that, although I recognized some of the folks as regulars (this was when I was weekly+ to NYC), everyone was pretty much indistinguishable. Men and women alike, we all had on menswear suits. We all had light khaki trench coats. We all toted oxblood-red leather briefcases. Ugh, ugh, a thousand times ugh!

The Eastern Shuttle, which was at one point the get-thee-to-NYC way to go, used to guarantee that, as long as people showed up on time for the hourly shuttle, the would put on sections to accommodate them.

My husband and I, when we first started to going to NYC – fun trips, and we went pretty often  - tried to game it so that we got on the second section, which back in the day, was a prop jet with some areas that were set up like little lounges, with comfy chairs facing each other. (All was not fun in those days. On one of our very early on trips, when we were still in our getting to know you phase, there was a bombing at LaGuardia – eleven people were killed – while we were visiting NYC, and we ended up driving home. Oddly, I remembered this as a “bomb threat,” not a bomb. I believe that, in its wake, airports stopped having lockers.)

When I traveled on business, it was generally during the prime business hours (6:30 a.m. down, 7 p.m. back), so there were always extra sessions. What they used to do when you got to the airport, was put a little colored sticker on your boarding pass. They’d then call the sections by color. On a Friday evening, there could be five or six sections, and when they called blue, half of the purples would surge forward. Ditto for red and orange. People would be screaming – “I’m a blue, not a purple,” “This is clearly red, not orange.” Not quite the last helicopter out of Saigon, but as close as I ever came.

We’d all get on, eventually, but when you see hundreds of business folks, late in the day on a rainy Friday, milling around in our menswear business suits and light khaki trench coats, jockeying for position, brandishing our oxblood red briefcases and our color-stickered boarding passes. Well, it is something of a sight.

Over time, the Eastern Shuttle got some competition. I don’t know if I ever took the Trump Shuttle, but I did take the Big Apple on occasion And People’s Express. In later days, PanAm got in on the action. Delta. Continental.

One of these airlines – was it Big Apple? – gave out “breakfast”, a tiny cold no-taste bagel or (yuck) a cold hard-boiled egg in a little plastic cup.

When the competition was intense, Eastern started really heaving up the frequent flyer miles. (Jim and I got a few upgrades and European trips out of them.) And one of the airlines did raffles. I once won a bottle of cheap champagne. Fortunately, it was on the way home. For those who won the cheap champagne on the 6:30 a.m., there was nothing to do with that cheap champagne other than leave it at the airport. I recall seeing a row of bottle lined up outside the men’s room.

Speaking of the men’s room at LGA, at one point, there were some improvements going on, and they temporarily moved the ladies room to the lower floor, and relo’d the men’s room to the ladies room. I was so used to hitting the bathroom before I got on the plane, that I charged right in to my good old ladies room, only to find that it had been reconstituted as a men’s room. Oops…

That reno didn’t do all that much for the LGA look and feel. I don’t recall there was ever much by way of food – desperation fare, only – and as for shopping, maybe a place you could get a candy bar or mag. But who cared?

Anyway, most of my LaGuardia memories are fond. So I enjoyed an article I saw on Bloomberg the other day entitled “Why You Should Love America’s Worst Airport.”

Although I might not go so far as to say, as she does, that LGA is my favorite airport, but I’m pretty much with writer Claire Suddath on this. Sure, it’s always been, as she notes, “a dilapidated hellhole.” It was a dilapidated hellhole that you could get in and out of pretty darned quickly. And there’s just something about it.

Much like the city it’s a gateway to, it’s bustling, gritty, purposeful, no-nonsense, surrounding by honking yellow cabs, and exhilarating in its own way. (Hey, I even saw Barbara Bush and her daughter there once. How’s that for exhilarating?)

Now LaGuardia is in for a Glamour makeover.

Last year, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the airport, began an estimated $8 billion renovation that will tear down LaGuardia’s terminals and replace them with a central hub.

They’re not adding another runway or two, which is what LaGuardia could really use.

Instead, LaGuardia will get upscale shops and eateries for travelers to check out while they wait and wait. I guess this was inevitable: There’s already a Korean barbecue truck at Los Angeles International and a bakery that makes sourdough in adorable animal shapes at San Francisco International. Most airports are owned by cities or municipal governments, and they’re rewarded financially by leasing gates to airlines and retail space to restaurants and stores. When airlines co-fund terminals, as Delta Inc. is doing at LaGuardia, they can reap some of the rental profit. Fancy terminals beget fancy retailers, who pay higher rent. It’s hard to persuade Bulgari to move into an airport without locks on every bathroom stall.

It’s been a few years since I’ve flown in or out of LaGuardia, but I hate the idea of it getting tarted up. Who needs another Wolfgang Puck fast food joint? Who wants to go shoe-shopping at an airport Johnston & Murphy?

I want the good old days, pushing and shoving to get on the blue shuttle, even though we had a purple sticker. A pack of Chuckles and a NY Mag tucked in the side of that oxblood red leather briefcase.

Yep, part of old-aging is getting nostalgic for places that probably aren’t worth getting nostalgic about.

But to think of a LaGuardia that looks like Heathrow, Frankfurt, or one of those other shopping monstrosities. Oh, boo-hoo.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Women of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your bunions!

When I was in junior high school,I started wearing high heels. Not all the time. Just for things like Easter Sunday and my aunt’s wedding.The heels were three inch “spikes”. I don’t remember them as being particularly uncomfortable. Then again, I didn’t wear them all that often.

During high school, I wore heels for things like Easter Sunday and the Father-Daughter Tea at my high school. (The one and only prom I went to, I wore flats, as my date was my height.) Other than that, the shoe that went everywhere/did everything was a Bass Weejun loafer. Since I never did anything fancy, loafers mostly worked just fine.

What I wore for work depended on the job. Since most of my jobs were of the waitressing variety, my shoe of obligation and choice was the white nurses shoe, a clunky-comfy white, rubber-soled oxford tie.

Fast forward to my business career.

When I first began working in an office (mid 1970’s), wBuckle loaferomen wore pumps that looked sort of like loafers, only they had a small square 1” (or so) heel and, instead of a slot for a penny, they had gold bar on them that looked like a tie clip. I had many pairs, in many colors.

When I got out of business school (1981), those pumps were still in service, augmented by a soEA pumpmewhat spiffier looking pump – sleeker, slightly higher heel. How many pairs of Eitenne Aigner did I own over the years? Answer: plenty. Boots, too. Those are Etienne’s to the left. (They were actually reasonable comfortable and looked a lot nicer than those loafer-clunkers.)

Somewhere along the line, really high heels crept into the work picture. Really high by my standards, anyway. That would be like the 3” spikes I wore in junior high to my aunt’s wedding.

These heels were often worn with the menswear skirt-suits and floppy bow-ties that us career gals sported. Must have looked really swell. But not as swell as the getting too and from work look: business suit, white athletic socks, and sneakers.

This is Tess from the movie “Working Girl.”Tess Our hair might not have been that big. Our skirts might not have been that short. But the shoes and socks are right. It was an especially fine look when you were wearing black or navy opaque stockings. Then your legs looked like a race horse with their ankles wrapped.

Over the years, tech got less formal, and for the most part, when I had on a skirt, my shoes were some sort of low-heeled loafery sort of thing. One step above a flat. Comfy, and you didn’t have to do the sneaker thing.

I have a couple of pairs of heels – strictly for weddings – but they’re not all that high. I don’t think there’s anything in the closet that goes above 2 inches. Plenty high enough!

Mostly, as is befitting a women of a certain age aiming to get her 10,000 Fitbit steps in a day, I’m in comfy shoes. The more orthopedic looking, the better. (Only kidding.)

But when I’m out and about, I do see working girls (no, not that kind of working girls), and plenty of them are wearing heels.

I don’t envy them.

Those high heels may look good (especially to men), but I know from experience that they’re uncomfortable, and your feet are killing you when you kick them off. And I know from reading that they can cause all sorts of leg and foot problems later in life. Not worth it, working girls, not worth it! (And that goes for you, too, Ivanka, tip-toeing along next to your father, making sure you don’t get your heels caught in the West Lawn. Even if you can afford to have a personal chiropodist on call.)

Anyway, I was interested to see a couple of articles in The New York Times on Brit Nicola Thorp, who:

…reported to work awhile back as a temporary receptionist in the financial center here, she was shocked when her temp supervisor said her flat shoes were unacceptable. She would need to get herself shoes with heels at least two inches high. When she refused, she was sent home from the accounting firm PwC without pay. (Source: NY Times)

Not one to put her feet up when there was work to be done, Ms. Thorp:

…started a petition calling for a law that would make sure no company could ever again demand that a woman wear heels to work. The petition garnered more than 150,000 signatures, helped spur a popular backlash — dozens of professional women posted photographs of themselves on Twitter defiantly wearing flats — and prompted an inquiry overseen by two parliamentary committees. On Wednesday, more than two years after Ms. Thorp, now 28, strode into that office in her chic but sensible black flats, the committees released a report concluding that Portico, the outsourcing firm that had insisted she wear high heels,had broken the law.

(Note in defense of PwC, it was Portico that had the high-heel rule, not PwC. PwC has enough controversy on their plate, these days, thanks to the recent Oscar snafu.)

Parliament, which seems an altogether more sensible lot than our Congress, is keeping at the problem.

On Monday, more than two years after Ms. Thorp was sent home over her shoes, members of Parliament called on the government to tighten the rules so British women would never again be forced to wear high heels at the office. (Source: NY Times)

Personally, I don’t think we actually need to have a law about this.

What we really need is for women to just stop being such dedicated and foolhardy followers of fashion that they’re willing to wear shoes that are crippling them. Come on, working girls, you have nothing to lose but your bunions.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Take me home, country roads. West Virginia (mountain mama)

US News recently came out with its rankings of the best states. Even if you can get beyond the utter idiocy of decreeing that any one state is the “best”, there’s the inevitable arbitrariness of the categories and the way in which the ratings are created. That said, the ratings were not entirely specious. After all, Massachusetts was named the best state. (New England, in general, punches above its weight. NH came in second, Vermont tenth, and Connecticut twelfth. Maine (18) and Rhode Island (21) also landed above the mean.) Massachusetts, for all its flaws – weather, cost of housing – ranks high in health, education, and the overall economy. So, we’re Number One, giving those in the other 49 states let another reason to confirms their opinion that we’re a bunch of Massholes. (Yeah, but we’re apparently well-educated and healthy Massholes, thank you.)

Massachusetts may not have been the overall intuitive pick for state greatness, but it’s not exactly a surprise that affluence, education, health, and welfare matter. Thus, it’s not exactly surprising to see the list of states trailing the pack. The only outlier in the bottom ten, populated largely by southern states, was New Mexico.

While it’s not dead last – that would be Louisiana – West Virginia placed in the 41st position.

These days, what with the promise of the return of coal mining jobs, West Virginia is much in the news and on the mind.

Some of that news was an article I saw last week in the Washington Post on the economic state of West Virginia – and the truth that those mining jobs won’t be coming back any time soon, even if the EPA is shut down and the mining companies are allowed to lop off mountain tops and power-flow effluents into the state’s rivers.

The article analyzed the make up of employment in West Virginia.

Most of the industries in West Virginia have added employees since 1990. This makes sense, given that the population of the state rose from 1990 to 2015, although by a modest 50,000 people. There’s broad variance across industries, though.

The biggest loss was in manufacturing, where the state lost 35,000 jobs. In mining, it shed about 13,000. But that was more than made up for by jobs in health care and social assistance. Those jobs increased by 60,000. Jobs in leisure and hospitality increased by 30,000. Those are giant shifts — and reflect similar shifts nationally.

Manufacturing made up 13.1 percent of jobs in West Virginia in 1990. In December, it made up 6.1 percent. Mining and logging jobs fell from 5.4 percent of state employment to 2.7 percent. Health care and social assistance jumped from 10 percent in 1990 — less than manufacturing — to 16.1 percent at the end of last year. Leisure and hospitality moved from 7.6 to 10 percent of the jobs in the state. (Source: Washington Post)

The article didn’t get into any WV vs. US comparisons, but this to me looks pretty much like what’s happened across the country over the last few decades. Most states never had the proportion of mining jobs that West Virginia had. Massachusetts grit job lore, for one, is Gloucester fisherman. It’s immigrant girl in the Lowell spinning mill. It’s not soot-faced miners dying of black lunch disease or getting crushed in cave-ins. But even though the proportion of miners in West Virginia in 1990 was far higher than it is today, it wasn’t al that high. (5.4%) 

But, somehow, during the election, the loss of coal mining jobs became the proxy for the swap out of “guy jobs” like coal mining and industrial manufacturing for softer (“girl jobs”) in services and tourism. And the fact that globalization and technology have upended the job scene, something that’s been going on for decades, not just for the past eight years.

In truth, there are ways in which states can transition to a more modern economy by replacing manufacturing (and coal-mining) jobs with better work in industries like technology, healthcare, and financial services. Massachusetts started doing this way back in the day, even before manufacturing jobs were being off-shored. When the textile and shoe mills went south in search of cheaper labor (mostl to states that appear regularly in the bottom 10 of best states lists), Massachusetts replaced those jobs with something better. Which is not to say that, for individuals, there was not plenty of dislocation. It’s just that, at the aggregate level, the state was better off. Much like the US economy is, in a macro sense, better off than it used to be. It’s just that, at the micro level, there are lot of people who are worse off under the new economic order than they were when they were risking life, lung, and limb to work in jobs like coal miner.

With automation, things may get worse before they get better for the little guy without much by way of skills, or for the white collar worker who’s not willing or able to continuously remake themselves to keep up. Just wait until all those autonomous trucks hit the highways. Or robots take over more construction jobs.

It ain’t going to be pretty.

But that’s all abstract.

We sure could use a national conversation about what people are going to do.

Unfortunately, this past election cycle, one side seemed to gloss oer the concerns and plight of those coal miners, while the other made ridiculous promises about the restoration of their jobs to the way things were in the glory days of John L. Lewis.

I’m sure if you live in (and love) West Virginia, it’s more John Denver singing, “Take Me Home, Country Roads” than it is “We’re #41!” But if West Virginia’s going to move up in those ridiculous rankings, it better start thinking beyond coal mining making a glorious reappearance.

Monday, March 06, 2017

That piece of Jesus toast is about to lose it’s eBay value

Recently, I made a pledge on Kickstarter. The pledge was to ADIFF, a design firm that focuses on creating clothing for those living in refugee camps. I wouldn’t have heard about ADIFF if its founder, a talented young designer named Angela Luna, wasn’t a graduate of Nazareth Academy, my niece Molly’s now-defunct alma mater. Angela more than raised the $60K she was looking, and it’s hard not to love her project. As a graduate of Parson’s School, she could have become yet another young designer aiming for the runway or the red carpet. Instead, she’s trying to make a diff – a big diff.

Compare and contrast Angela’s work of the heart and the soul with another Kickstarter project I stumbled on: Toasteroid.

Toasteroid is NOT just a toaster. An ordinary toaster turns bread brown and that’s the ONLY thing a toaster can do. Toasteroid can be your personal Weather Forecaster, Private Messenger, and Doodle Pad. It can do all of the above with simple commands from your smartphone and still make the most perfect piece of toast you’ve ever had.

As with ADIFF, Toasteroid exceeded its goal. They were looking for $150K and, at last look, had raised $187K so that someone can realize their dream of having a message from a loved one printed on their toast. Or get the weather forecast. Because it’s just so hard to look it up on Intellicast. Or, god forbid, stick your head out the window and figure it out for yourself.

I suspect that for every Angela Luna doing good, there are a dozen doing silly.

Honestly, isn’t there something better that these creative types could spend their time cooking – make that toasting – up?

I guess I’ve become such a no-humor grump that I just don’t see the purpose of something that you’d use once or twice as a gag. Or maybe a few times if you had kids who wanted to see Elsa or Spidey printed on their toast.

Okay, every innovation can’t be a jacket for refugees, but still…

Even though I didn’t have kids, I do recognize that fun with food can be, well, fun. For holidays, my mother decorated cakes. Not in any super, fancy-arse, someone-would-pay-for-it way, but by frosting a cake with white icing, and then adding, say, Kelly green shamrocks for St. Patrick’s Day smoothed on with a knife, and approximating the look of a shamrock. Or throw on some cherries for Washington’s Birthday. (As a child maraschino cherry addict, an iced chocolate cake with cherries on it was the cherry bomb.) So, yeah, fun with food.

But do we really need smart toasters that do Toasteroiddumb things?

I want better innovation angels…

I will give the Toasteroid folks this: their toaster is attractive. I never thought I’d make this argument: isn’t it enough to be good looking? Does everything have to be smart, too?

The one upside I can see to Toasteroid is that those lunatics who were seeing the face of Jesus in their toast, and offering it up on eBay to lunatics with money to burn, will be out of luck. Oh, I suppose they’ll still be discovering the random Madonna in the Cupcake, or whatever it is that people see in things. (Me, I wish I’d had the presence of mind to wedge out the ham-pink-with-white-swirls tile square in the bathroom that looked to me like a very young Bonnie Prince Charlie, with his big ol’ tam-o-shanter, hugging his dog. Imagine what I could have gotten for that on eBay. If eBay had existed, and if my parents hadn’t killed me for destroying the bathroom tile.)

Maybe I’m just jealous because there’s no one to send me a Merry Breakfast wish to pop up on my slice of pumpernickel. Readers who knew my late husband will be amused by the thought of Jim sending me a toasty billet doux from his smartphone. If, indeed, he’d had a smartphone. Not that I would have been sending him a message in return. What would it have been? The latest deals on frequent flyer miles? The IS/LM curve? (Jim was an economist.) And I’m sure it would have worked just swell on the crappy gluten-free bread he ate, which – holey-moley – was full of holes after it sat there for a few days. Will Toasteroid mind the gaps that I’m sure still exist in gluten-free bread? Gluten does serve more purpose than just making bread taste like bread.

Enough Monday morning grump.

I must away to toast an English muffin – and how would Toasteroid handle it? It will not have a super-hero on it, the weather forecast, a love note…But it will serve its purpose.

As will Angela Luna’s jacket. Now there’s a purpose!

Congratulations, Angela! You’re doing this Naz aunt proud!


Friday, March 03, 2017

The AI geniuses are going to figure it out for us. Phew…

I’m not holding my breath waiting for the arrival of the singularity – the point where some computer, chock full of AI, starts feeling its oats, and runaway technology takes over are starts doing things like manipulating elections, screwing with the stock market, wiping out the grid, and goading all the self-driving vehicles into playing bumper car. Or whatever pops into its artificially intelligent mind. There’ll be no holding it back, because the computer will have gotten so much smarter and more generally competent that we humans are.

The singular awfulness of the singularity may or may not occur in my lifetime. But if it does, I hope it instructs whatever intelligent device sitting on my nightstand, or embedded in my forearm, to do the singularity equivalent of blowing the poison, instantly killing dart into my carotid artery. Kind of like the blowguns the “natives” were armed with in Tarzan movies. Because while I know plenty of computers that are smarter than people – my phone is more intelligent (EQ and IQ) than half the ninnies on “reality” TV, let alone a goodly proportion of those commenting on Boston Globe articles – I don’t want to be around when computers surpass all of us when it comes to sentience, empathy, and wit.

But that’s just me.

Fortunately, I can pack up all my singularity-related cares and woe, now that the big mahoffs of the AI world (40 of them, anyway) have gotten together at an event called “Envisioning and Addressing Adverse AI Outcomes” to figure things out.

Artificial intelligence boosters predict a brave new world of flying cars and cancer cures. Detractors worry about a future where humans are enslaved to an evil race of robot overlords. Veteran AI scientist Eric Horvitz and Doomsday Clock guru Lawrence Krauss, see king a middle ground, gathered a group of experts in the Arizona desert to discuss the worst that could possibly happen -- and how to stop it. (Source: Bloomberg)

Given that this is the 21st century, the event did a bit of gamifying, asking participants to submit entries describing (within reason and plausible short-term technology) the worst thing that could happen if they – I mean it – takes over. The winning ideas were discussed at panels composed of experts, who debated what would be the best thing to do if their worst-case scenario happened.

I have to say that this sounds like a nerdfest par excellence. Almost makes me wish I were an AI expert…

Artificial kidding aside, there are some pretty nasty AI possibilities out there.

The possibility of intelligent, automated cyber attacks is the one that most worries John Launchbury, who directs one of the offices at the U.S.'s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and Kathleen Fisher, chairwoman of the computer science department at Tufts University, who led that session. What happens if someone constructs a cyber weapon designed to hide itself and evade all attempts to dismantle it? Now imagine it spreads beyond its intended target to the broader internet. Think Stuxnet, the computer virus created to attack the Iranian nuclear program that got out in the wild, but stealthier and more autonomous.

"We're talking about malware on steroids that is AI-enabled," said Fisher, who is an expert in programming languages. Fisher presented her scenario under a slide bearing the words "What could possibly go wrong?" which could have also served as a tagline for the whole event.

Malware on steroids? And here I was worrying about the phishing expedition that followed my recent encounter with UPS’s chat support.

Anyway, I will sleep more easily tonight knowing that there are a bunch of AI geniuses who are going to figure it all out before it’s too late.